It was his decision, at age 21, to walk away from a job in finance to work at a summer camp in the United States that helped Chris Grumley set his life in a new, positive direction.
“It was a turning point. I was thrown into the deep end. I’d worked so hard to create this person after my mental health issues, the person I thought I was supposed to be, but at the camp I could reset. I could be who I really was,” Chris says.
He spent five months at the camp, supporting children from disadvantaged areas of Chicago.
“I can remember there were two brothers who arrived with half a towel each. I realised work needed to be done to help people, and I wanted to do it somehow.”
Now 28 years old and back in Sydney, Chris has put that wish into action. He is a peer worker at mental health service Flourish Australia, working in the Youth Community Living Support Service (YCLSS). There he assists people aged 16-24 with mental illness to achieve their goals and connect with their community. He has been with the program for nearly four years.
“My mental health issues were from when I was 16 to 22, so the program participants are the same age as when I was going through my stuff. It’s helped me come to terms with a lot of the things I did. I talk to them about skills I learnt and find things to help them. I share my lived experience purposefully. I’m a firm believer that I can’t expect young people to share things without me giving anything.”
For Chris, his lived experience of mental illness included many years of bullying, night terrors, obsessive-compulsive thinking and depression, before psychosis set in at age 16.
“I have a very supportive family but I kept a lot from my parents and managed a lot of it myself. There were some interventions but they were very incident-based, like responding to bullying. There wasn’t a focus on the common, ongoing problems that I had.
“Things came to a head one day when I had a bit of breakdown at high school. I was a pretty heavy insomniac and I fell asleep in class one day. I had a massive night terror in the middle of class and they sent me to the counsellor and it all started spilling out.”
His school counsellor gave him the phone number for a free local youth mental health service. Chris called the number but notes that if he had been unable or unwilling to make that call, “I wouldn’t have gotten any help”. Fortunately staff at the service were “gentle” and connected Chris with two psychiatrists who worked together to kick start his recovery.
“I would talk quite a lot and one would listen and one would write. I started writing poetry and music and they encouraged that. I filled four 96 page exercise books in a year. I started playing in heavy metal bands, which was a great release.”
The psychiatrists also used talking therapies to help Chris work though past trauma, something Chris does now with his own clients.
“When you’re talking to someone about trauma, you’re talking to the deepest parts of them,” he explains. “You can’t get any deeper than that part of someone’s mind. I think you need to be really, really transparent. You need to say, ‘I know this is rough. I can’t imagine what that would feel like, what you’ve been through’. The last thing people want to hear is you understand, that you’ve been through exactly what they’ve been through.”
Today, Chris stays well by going to the gym four days a week, learning kung fu, playing music, hanging out with his fiancée, friends and family, and via his work: “My Flourish team’s my family.”
He wants to continue pushing the power of peer work, and dreams of one day speaking to high school audiences about mental health issues.
“You’ve just got to always keep improving. I’m going to be growing my whole life.”